The Zombie Gospel
What could the undead of George Romero's horror films teach the living about life? Plenty. A conversation with author Kim Paffenroth.
By John D. Spalding
In George Romero’s 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead,” a wave of zombies attacks seven people barricaded in a farmhouse. The zombies are slow but determined. Previously dead, these human creatures, or at least their brain stems, have somehow been revived, and they stagger around blank-eyed, searching clumsily for human flesh to eat. The only way to stop them is to blow their brains out.
The graphic brutality aside, the true horror of the film is how depraved, violent, and predatory the people become in their desperation to survive. Fighting among themselves, the humans often have more to fear from each other than from the mindless ghouls pursuing them.
Romero has continued to explore this dark view of human nature in a series of horror classics, from “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) and “Day of the Dead” (1985) to a remake of “Dawn” (2004) and “Land of the Dead” (2005). Because he probes the ways in which we degrade and dehumanize ourselves, Romero’s films are ripe for theological analysis. In his highly readable new book, Gospel of the Living Dead, author Kim Paffenroth, an associate professor of religious studies at Iona College, urges readers to consider Romero’s films in terms of the concepts of sin and redemption, arguing that the filmmaker offers a “real, if extreme, diagnosis of what ails us.”
I recently spoke with Paffenroth about his book, the disturbing familiarity of the undead, the dangers of shopping malls, and why zombie movies may well represent our society’s greatest hope.
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In the author photo on the back flap, your face is drained of blood, there are dark circles under your eyes, and you’ve got a hideous bite mark on your neck. You don’t clean up well, do you?
Well, we zombies never do… I was already made up to pose in the crowd of zombies for the cover art, and the photographer said, “Hey, grab a book and I’ll take your picture.” The bookcases behind me were doctored in later. It was a total goof, and it stuck.
Some think of Romero’s films as merely barbaric gorefests. Explain what makes them humane and meaningful.
Romero’s films offer social criticism and real insight into evil and sin in human life. And if you’re going to look at evil and sin, well, it’s going to be ugly, even grotesque. And to the extent that these films can help us to better understand sin, and possibly avoid it, then they’re performing a service. That’s why I see these films as updated versions of Dante’s “Inferno”…
Zombie films, as remakes of the greatest poem of the Middle Ages?
Yeah. For me, Dante’s eye-opening insight is that the wages of sin isn’t so much an external punishment or torture, but a kind of internal stupefying boredom, in which the sinner is trapped in a very shadowy dull existence. Like Dante’s gluttons, who literally wallow in their sins. I think Romero’s image of zombies reflects that idea perfectly. For example, the zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” wander around the mall, completely oblivious to how damned and mindless they are. They’re just like sinners in Dante’s hell who endlessly repeat their sinful behavior.
Well, we can all relate to at least one zombie, er, character, trapped in Dante’s circles.
That’s part of what makes zombies more terrifying than other monsters. You can identify with zombies simply because they look so much like normal people. Which does two things. First, it makes you feel more sympathetic towards them. And, second, the more you think about it, the more you realize all the ways in which you’re not that different.
We’re all, in a way, pre-zombies. We can all be ignorant, proud, selfish, and violent. We all have a sinful nature—or limitations, to use a secular term. We’re all going to die. And our lives will be better if we invest them with meaning and value rather than fritter them away with all the mindless distractions we waste so much time and energy on.
You also describe the zombies as ideal mallgoers—“never getting bored or bickering or fighting over items.”
Yes. In “Dawn of the Dead” a group of surviving humans breaks into a mall to escape the zombies. They think that living in this huge place with all this stuff will make them happy. But once they’ve been there for a while they become greedy, bored, and miserable. By the end of the film, a rival group of humans tries to take over the mall, which allows all the zombies to return. The ensuing battle is extremely harrowing—incredibly bloody and grotesque. Romero really lets loose. Finally, a couple of humans escape through the roof, and take off in a helicopter, while the remaining people are eaten by zombies.
Then, in the final scene, the zombies are walking around the mall, seemingly perfectly happy, bumping into the displays and browsing the merchandise. They’re “shopping” and, we are to realize, they are us! It’s a powerful movie, and I think it’d be difficult for anyone, even a teenager, to watch “Dawn of the Dead” and not feel uneasy about going to the mall.
I’m cutting up my Barneys card as we speak… Interestingly, you also compare zombies to the Shakers, the branch of Quakers that gave us such nice pine furniture.
Well, I was referring to how the Shakers spread. They believed in celibacy for all members, so, like the Zombies, they did not reproduce. The only way they could multiply was by converting others.
As you put it, zombies are “like a cult of cannibalistic Shakers.”
I didn’t mean any disrespect to the Shakers…
Don’t worry. I researched this for you. No kidding: thanks to their zero-procreation policy, there are exactly four Shakers left, and they live in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Just avoid that part of the state, and you should be OK…
Will do… On the other hand, the Shakers led lives that were the complete opposite of zombies—very simple, non-materialistic…
So much for a “Night of the Living Shakers” sequel then… What do you know about Romero’s religious background and worldview? In at least two of his films, he doesn’t present human beings as, let’s just say, particularly noble or salvageable.
All I know for sure is that he was raised Catholic. But I think you’re right—his overall vision of human nature is…well, it’s even worse than the concept of original sin. Because he gives very little sense that there’s a way out. He shows us original sin without any sense of grace or salvation. So it’s half a Christian worldview, if you will. It’s a really sobering view of what the world would be like without God or the possibility of redemption.
In fact, the human characters seem to degenerate morally with each film. Except maybe in the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” right?
Yes, almost all the human characters in the remake are virtuous, which you don’t find in the other movies. There’s also some back and forth. “Day of the Dead” returns to some of the themes of “Night of the Living Dead,” with this libido dominandi—the lust to dominate and oppress others. Certainly by the time you’re into “Land of the Dead,” with Dennis Hopper playing the evil Kaufman—he’s the most deliberately satanic character Romero paints. So, yes, there’s a downward progression in his films, but only in terms of the human survivors, not the zombies.
Well, yeah, because the zombies are mindless and their actions are purely bestial, so you can’t really call their horrific acts “sins”…
Right, and if anything the zombies are kind of improving, so that by the third and fourth films, “Day” and “Land,” they’re remarkably restrained. In “Land” they even hold hands with each other, starting to act like people again. Whereas the living people act worse and worse.
You note that another level of horror in Romero’s films is that the survivors never get an opportunity to mourn their loved ones. You can’t really grieve the death of grandma if she’s suddenly trying to gnaw on your neck.
That’s part of the dehumanization of his movies, and that’s why slasher flicks don’t particularly interest or frighten me. In Romero’s films, not only do you die painfully, but you’re then reduced to doing these horrible things to others just out of necessity. And these are the real-life kind of horrors people face in times of war and disaster, disease and famine. Dire circumstances and scarce resources often rob us of our humanity.
In the book’s conclusion, you write: “I remain optimistic about the future of zombie films, perhaps more optimistic than I am about any other aspect of our government, society, culture, or religion.” Hear, hear!
Another way to put that is, I’m so pessimistic about human institutions in general, that if there’s any that gives me hope, it’s the artistic community. Artists do seem to chug along, doing their little marginal counterculture thing, and zombie films are very much at the margin of that—even at the edge of the horror community.
So what is the Gospel, the “good news,” of the Living Dead?
It’s the idea that until you are truly dead, you can always be shocked and revolted by sin, which seems most clear in “Dawn of the Dead.” At the end, the protagonists are shocked out of this lifestyle of materialism, boredom, and violence they’ve adopted. And as they flee the mall, they may be heading towards worse danger, but at least they’ve chosen a life that’s better for them—more authentic, more genuinely human.
And that, I think, is the effect Romero’s films have on viewers. They leave us feeling chastened, drained, and uplifted—reminded of the spiritual zombification that goes on all around us, and determined to be better people.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Saints Gone Wild.
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